Everywhere you turn in this nation, you see a society primed for implosion. We seem unaware how extraordinary the American experience has been, especially in the last hundred years. By this, I don't mean that we are a better people than any other society -- these days, ordinary people in the USA make an effort to appear thuggish and act surly, as though we were a nation of convicts -- but for decade-upon-decade, we were very fortunate. Even the Great Depression of the 1930s may seem like a relatively peaceful and gentle "time out" from a frantic era of hypertrophic growth, compared to the storm we're sailing into now.
NVDL: America is a nation of places not worth caring about. The world is filled with cities and eyesores not worth caring about, and so it's no surprise that we don't.
We were fortunate to inhabit a New World filled with productive land, lots of minerals, and plenty of coal, oil, and gas; and the land itself was insulated physically from the great theaters of 20th century conflict, though we fought in wars "over there." That experience itself, especially our victory over manifest evil in the Second World War, left us with a dangerous mentality of triumphal exceptionalism. Even now, we think we are immune to the epochal hazards of history. The notion that nothing really bad can happen to us is reflected in the blind cluelessness of our current news media and their simple failure to report what is now happening.
I drove up along an obscure stretch of the upper Hudson river on Sunday, starting in the old factory town of Cohoes, north of Albany, where the Mohawk River runs into the Hudson. There is a powerful waterfall there, and along the high bank the massive old red-brick Harmony Mill still stands with its Victorian towers and mansard roofs, like a vision from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Behind them are streets of red-brick, three-story worker row-housing from the same period. Today they are inhabited by a different kind of poor people, not necessarily working, and probably suffering from a sheer lack of structure in their lives as well as plain poverty of means. These are people who probably don't follow the Bloomberg financial bulletins, and their experience of a cratering economy may only be the rising cost of cigarettes and beer.
The tattoo quotient among both men and women there is impressive. In the days when the Harmony Mill was built, only South Seas cannibals and sailors wore tattoos. You wonder: are tattoos now the only way left for this class of Americans to assert their selfhood? And what exactly are they proclaiming? I am a warrior. Or is it: I am a television (I display pictures, too) !? The expanding class of the poor-and-idle has been remarkably passive in the face of their dwindling prospects. Perhaps they passed the point years ago (a generation or two ago!) when there was any sense of sequential improvement for the family's station-in-life. The destiny of their everyday lives must seem totally beyond their control. They are subject to the fate of distant corporations who sell the staple corn-syrup byproducts and gasoline on which daily life is based. Where government is concerned, they are all potential victims of Katrina-ism, awaiting their own personal disaster.
North of the junction of the Mohawk and Hudson was the old town of Waterford, where the Erie Canal began its journey west -- bypassing those powerful waterfalls. The locks are still there and still in operation for the infrequent tanker ships and ore barges that come and go to the Great Lakes. But the operation of the canal system is automated to the extent that it requires only a handful of people to run the locks now, and the town around them has deteriorated into slum and semi-slum garnished with a few convenience stores and pizza shops. There is no other commerce there. No matter how poor, the denizens are required to drive a car to a giant chain store for groceries or hardware or clothing.
As you leave Waterford, the river road becomes a suburban corridor of 1960s-vintage ranch houses and stand-alone small retail business buildings which, if used at all now, are mostly hair salons, chiropractic studios, and other services not generally rendered by the chain stores. All this stuff was deployed along the road with the expectation that Americans would be driving cars cheaply forever. Now that this is distinctly no longer the case, corridors like this are entering their death throes. The awfulness of the design and construction of these buildings is now especially vivid as the plywood de-laminates, and the vinyl soffits fall off, and the dinge of neglect forms a patina over it all. Hopelessness infects this landscape like a miasma. Whatever young adults remain in these places are not thinking about a plausible future, only looking to complete their full array of tattoos and lose themselves in raptures of sex, methedrine, and video aggression.
Eventually, after running through the disintegrating towns of Mechanicville (once a place of earnest labor, just like it sounds, now a morass of sinking car dealerships and Quik-stops), and Stillwater (smaller version of the same), the road turned completely rural and few other cars ventured up there. The decisive Revolutionary battle of Saratoga was fought near there on the bluffs and hills overlooking the Hudson in 1777. You wonder what the heroes of that battle would think of what we have become. What would they make of the word "consumer" that we use to describe our relation to the world? What would they think of excellent river bottom-land that is now barely used for farming -- or, where it is still farmed (dairying if anything), of farmers who will not even put in a kitchen garden for themselves because it might detract from their hours of TV viewing?
The sclerosis of American life is shocking. If you go further north up the Hudson River, to Fort Edward and Hudson Falls, you'll see a nation that seems ready to crawl off and die. There, it appears too far gone to even put up a proxy fight on a video screen. Frankly, I don't want that version of America to survive -- the America of chain stores, and muscle cars, and grown men obsessed with video games, drugs, and pornography, and women decorated like cannibals, and the vast, crushing purposelessness of it all. I have no doubt we're heading into a convulsion that will wring much of this junk and dross into the backwaters of history. We're capable of being something better than this, of putting our time on earth to better use, including a more respectful treatment of the land we inhabit. This year and the next will be the years of letting go, and out of that we'll commence a re-becoming.